As the pop artist Andy Warhol once observed, everyone will have 15 minutes of fame. In a figurative sense -- the actual period lasted at least 52 days -- Walter J. Bierwagen had his interlude of local fame in the summer of 1955, a period well remembered by Washingtonians. It was the year of the big Capital Transit strike, a turning point in Washington transportation history that ultimately brought us Metro.
Bierwagen, whose name was pronounced "beer wagon," died Saturday at the age of 75. He arrived in this area in 1936 to become a bus driver for the old Capital Transit Co., became president in 1952 of the drivers' and streetcar operators' union, led the successful strike and went on to a top leadership post in the Amalgamated Transit Union.
Barrel-chested, gray-maned and charismatic, Bierwagen was as persuasive in pleading the need for low-fare public transit as he was in advocating on behalf of his members.
Louis E. Wolfson, widely regarded as a corporate raider of his day, had acquired Capital Transit -- long a showpiece of the nation's transit industry -- in 1949.
In a period of transit downturn, Wolfson's managers cut schedules and routes and, in 1955, denied the drivers a wage increase unless the District of Columbia authorities granted a fare increase.
D.C. officials balked, and lacking the higher pay the drivers walked out on July 1, 1955, tying up the city. Parking meter charges were suspended, and autos were permitted to be parked along midstreet tracks. Bierwagen's name, as the leader of the union, was in print every day for 52 days.
Before the buses and cars rolled again, higher fares and wages were granted -- and Wolfson's Capital Transit franchise had been canceled by Congress, which ordered a deferred end to streetcars (which occurred in 1962).
The first result was the arrival in 1956 of O. Roy Chalk and his D.C. Transit System. The second result was forecast by Wolfson three days after the strike ended: The Washington community, he declared, "seems doomed to a municipally operated transit system."
Indeed, a form of that eventually came about. But many sought public ownership and didn't consider it a form of doom (although many mistakenly thought it would repeal the laws of economics and prevent higher fares). In 1973, Metrobus service by a regional agency replaced D.C. Transit and suburban bus companies.
The Metro subway opened in 1976. Bierwagen, by then an international union official, pushed the Metro concept and helped establish its labor relations policy.
Washington never has been a big town for organized labor, and the transit union, along with the printers and some construction unions, were mainstays before the emergence of government worker unions.
It's interesting that two contemporaries -- Bierwagen, as international vice president and legislative director of the transit union, and J.C. Turner, as president of the Operating Engineers -- rose simultaneously to top leadership roles in their international unions, both of which have Washington headquarters.